A continued drop in 16 to 18 apprenticeship starts has prompted a call for the government to clampdown on schools that are failing to promote vocational options.

The number of under 19 apprenticeships started in the first half of this year was provisionally put at 69,600 — a 12 per cent drop on last year’s provisional figure of  79,100.

It comes just two months after the government revealed under 19 apprenticeship starts had fallen for the first time in three years — from 131,700 in 2010/11 to 129,900 last year.

A spokesperson for the government said: “Sixteen and 17-year-olds face tough competition to secure apprenticeships in a difficult economic climate.

“We are providing grants to encourage smaller employers to take on young apprentices and the National Apprenticeship Service [NAS] has increased outreach to employers and is running local and national campaigns to encourage them to offer apprenticeships.”

She added: “We will build on this experience as we launch our traineeships programme in September, which will give young people the skills and experience they need to help secure a job or apprenticeship.”

However, a spokesperson for the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) urged the government to ensure schools promoted traineeships.

He said: “Traineeships will be important in trying to reverse the 16 to 18 fall.

“In fact, provided the world at large knows about them, they will be a very important alternative option to sixth forms if it is true that schools are now using the introduction of Raising the Participation Age as an excuse to fill their sixth forms next September without offering impartial advice about other post-16 choices.

“Our members are increasingly concerned that many 16-year-olds are only hearing one message which is ‘You must stay on in school for another year’. This has to be addressed quickly.”

The AELP’s call for action comes just two months after House of Commons Education Select Committee chair Graham Stuart MP questioned schools who, he said, “put their own interests ahead of that of their pupils, restrict access to other education providers and make the filling of their sixth form places more of a priority than their statutory duty to provide independent and impartial advice and guidance for pupils”.

Teresa Frith, Association of Colleges senior skills policy manager, said: “While an initial reaction might be to blame a lack of available placements, quite a few of our members are finding it difficult to find young students who are ready to put in to those placements.

“This is a fairly recent phenomena and suggests there is a real need for traineeships. Why young people are unready for placements on apprenticeships is an area that warrants further consideration.”

Nevertheless, the AELP welcomed a rise in the number of 19 to 24 apprenticeship starts — up 6.5 per cent to 82,100 for the first half of this year.

Its spokesperson said providers deserved a “great deal of credit for encouraging employers to take on more 19 to 24 apprentices”.

The overall number of apprenticeship starts grew from 457,200 in 2010/11 to 520,600 last year.

However, according to the latest Statistical First Release, the overall number of apprenticeship starts so far this year was down on the same period for 2011/12.

The provisional figures show that across the age ranges there was a 4.5 per cent decrease to 245,000 starts for the first half of this year.

“The Tory-led government needs to stop being complacent over these figures and recognise we need a step change to boost apprenticeship opportunities,” said Shadow Skills Minister Gordon Marsden.

“Yet only two weeks ago, they voted against our proposals to use public procurement to create thousands of new apprenticeships for young people and deliver that step change — an action that is even more incredible when you consider the numbers of apprenticeships for young people are down 12 per cent.”

David Way, chief operating officer at NAS, said: “Our new statutory standards are ensuring higher quality in apprenticeships which is essential for both the apprentice and the employer.

“We are seeing a short term impact on the number of people starting an apprenticeship as some delivery models adjust. Raising standards is crucial to securing the longer term success and growth of apprenticeships.

“We are working hard with employers and training providers to increase the number of young people who are ready and able to take up apprenticeship opportunities. This work includes a dedicated marketing campaign targeting employers and raising the profile of apprenticeships to young people considering their career options.

“Our online recruitment service, Apprenticeship Vacancies, is matching thousands of young people to suitable opportunities.

“In addition, the apprenticeship grant for employers has now supported 25,100 new apprenticeships, of which 65 per cent are 16 to 18-year-olds.”

Skills Minister Matthew Hancock added: “The action taken to increase the duration of apprenticeships and improve quality means that numbers are shifting towards more higher level apprenticeships.

“We are reforming apprenticeships to make them more rigorous and responsive to the ever-changing needs of the modern workplace.”